THE BOOK SHELF: Gerald Schoenfeld's "Mr. Broadway," Plus Two Books on Irving Berlin

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03 Jun 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "Mr. Broadway"

This month's column looks at "Mr. Broadway," Gerald Schoenfeld's memoir about life as a Shubert, plus two books about Irving Berlin: "The Irving Berlin Reader" and "Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater."


There's no business like show business, as the song goes, and we get a fascinating discussion of that particular field in Gerald Schoenfeld's Mr. Broadway: The Inside Story of the Shuberts, the Shows, and the Stars [Applause]. Now, people looking solely for stories of shows and stars might be less than overwhelmed by what's here. Shubert theatres housed more than half of the important plays and musicals since 1949, when Schoenfeld first stepped into the law office of William Klein. (Klein had been a permanent Shubert fixture since the evening in 1905 when he and Sam Shubert were in a train crash near Harrisburg, taking the latter's life). The shows which Schoenfeld discusses, though, are not the great hits booked into the theatres during his 60 years of service but the ones that he and Bernie Jacobs personally coproduced under the Shubert Organization mantel. A worthy subgroup, starting with Amadeus, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Cats, but not the sort of titles you'd get in a memoir by Hal Prince or David Merrick. (Schoenfeld does talk at length about two unsuccessful shows he poured his heart — and Shubert resources — into, the musicals Amour and Passing Strange.)

Neither are the stars the thing. Hugh Jackman provides a loving foreword — he seemed to look upon Gerry as a father figure — and there's an introduction from Alec Baldwin as well. Schoenfeld describes his battles with Liza with a Z — The Act is one of those disastrous Shubert-produced musicals — Al Pacino, Kathleen Turner and others.

Also on hand are folks like Bennett, Fosse and Nunn. His big chapter on leading ladies, is called "Dancing with Divas: Mae, Maria and Joan," and I defy any Broadway-watcher to identify 'em without lots of head-scratching.

Gerald Schoenfeld

But Schoenfeld was not, really, a producer (in the common use of the term). He was a Shubert, or as much of a Shubert as anyone other than the original boys from Syracuse. We have long known the highlights and lowlights of the clan's 100-plus year reign on Broadway. Schoenfeld — who died in 2008, at the age of 84 — occasionally referred to himself as the man who saved the Shuberts. His memoir reveals just how he did save the Shuberts and their theatres from extinction, and on more than one occasion. We follow a string of severe calamities, with the enemies including competitors, the government, and — most viciously — other Shuberts. Schoenfeld (and, beginning in 1957, Bernard B. Jacobs) navigated the dangers with a combination of caution, craft, and luck; as you follow the ins and outs, you see that Gerry really did save the Shuberts from at least three potentially fatal blows. (I have always known him as Gerry; the book, posthumously and impressively finished by Schoenfeld's widow Pat, calls him Jerry. Which looks wrong to me on every page.)

Here are the Shuberts — the two real ones, plus a couple of heirs — drawn in a more lifelike manner than elsewhere. Schoenfeld didn't actually know Lee — he sat in on a meeting with him, once — but he implemented Lee's demands for four years as he was starting out. He did have a much closer relationship with J.J. (Jake), who was even more impossible than Lee. As Jake went senile, the reigns were taken over by Jake's son John, who seems the most decent of the group (although it was discovered that he had a second wife hidden away, with two children.) John was far preferable to J.J.'s hated nephew Milton, who inherited Lee's estate and promptly sued J.J. in a case that took 12 years and 85 court hearings. Worst of all was Larry (Lawrence Shubert Lawrence), who was content to drink away the family business. When they finally got rid of the latter, Schoenfeld and Jacobs got tangled up with a hustler named Irving Goldman who almost got them all in jail. It wasn't until 1972 that the pair took control, and helped usher in a new era on Broadway.

If this sounds like a delectable roller coaster of a saga, it is. And let us be clear that Schoenfeld is not simply concerned with praising Schoenfeld. Time and again he criticizes his own decisions, blaming himself for at least some of the problems with the government's anti-trust case and noting that he, himself, urged the board to make the near-fatal appointments of Lawrence Shubert Lawrence and Irving Goldman. Anyone interested in show business of the Broadway variety — with the emphasis on business as opposed to glittery stars — is going to find "Mr. Broadway" of page-turning interest.

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